Is Catholic identity hurting enrollment at Catholic colleges?

Loyola University New Orleans is one of several Catholic colleges facing what they hope are temporary budgetary challenges. (iStock/Gregory Kurpiel)Loyola University New Orleans is one of several Catholic colleges facing what they hope are temporary budgetary challenges. (iStock/Gregory Kurpiel)

While commencement season is just kicking into high gear, administrators at colleges and universities have already turned their attention to the fall, when a new crop of students will arrive on campus. But colleges and universities across the United States have struggled to meet enrollment goals for the last decade or so, partly the result of a dip in the birth rate, leading to cutbacks in faculty and staff. Catholic schools must also contend with how to market themselves to an increasingly secular applicant pool while trying to catch up to their secular peers in terms of financial resources. In many cases, their labor costs are also rising because fewer religious sisters, brothers and priests are available to fill jobs.

At Loyola University New Orleans, a “campus climate survey” commissioned by administrators last fall found that 64 percent of the faculty have “seriously considered leaving Loyola in the past year.” About seven in 10 in that group cited “institutional instability” as a reason to consider leaving, the report found, with some describing Loyola as a “sinking ship.”

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According to The New Orleans Advocate, the survey was conducted in October, after the Jesuit university completed a round of layoffs, its fourth in as many years. The Advocate reported on April 10 that the school is searching for a new president who will inherit a budget gap of nearly $25 million and challenges meeting enrollment goals. But a spokeswoman from Loyola University later contacted America to say that the projected shortfall is $8.7 million. Laura F. Frerichs said the university has “a plan in place to balance our budget with no further draw on our endowment” and that the school expects an operating surplus by July 2019.

“We look forward to welcoming our first lay president, and feel confident that they will be leading a Loyola that is solid and strong,” Ms. Frerichs wrote in an email.

Similarly, administrators at St. Catherine University in St. Paul are considering laying off up to 50 faculty and staff to address a budget shortfall caused, in part, by a decline in enrollment of more than 6 percent from 2012, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

“We’ve all shed many tears because it wasn’t something we would like to do,” Susan Trelstad, head of the faculty senate, told the radio station. “But when we saw the numbers and started building models, we could see that, ‘Yeah, we have to fix something,’ because this isn’t sustainable and we want St. Kate’s to be here for our students.”

Meanwhile, The Catholic University of America, the only university in the United States with a papal charter, is proposing to reduce the size of its full-time faculty by about 9 percent according to The Washington Post, through a plan that could, in addition to buyouts and attrition, include layoffs. Overall enrollment has been on a downward trajectory since 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, and the plan calls for faculty to teach more classes so that the university can cut about 35 positions. But a spokeswoman for the university told America that undergraduate enrollment increased in the last academic year and is “tracking up for next year.”

According to consultants hired by the university, how the school markets its Catholic identity may present challenges in trying to increase enrollment in order to close budget gaps. Some prospective students, the report found, perceive Catholic University to be more religious than its peer institutions, which may be a stumbling block to reaching enrollment goals.

“Students are open to having their experience enriched by Catholicism, but not necessarily defined by Catholicism," said Eric Collum, one of the consultants, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "They want to go to college; they don’t want to go to church, necessarily."

Julia G. Young, a history professor at Catholic University, wrote at Commonweal that she fears the university is targeting a narrow segment of the Catholic population, which has, in part, contributed to the declining enrollment.

“At times it seems that the administration’s interpretation of Catholicism—and of who belongs in the Catholic Church—has narrowed considerably since I was an undergraduate,” she wrote. “If the [school’s strategic plan] is implemented as currently designed, this dispiriting scenario will only grow worse.”

Some prospective students perceive Catholic University to be more religious than its peer institutions, which may be a stumbling block to reaching enrollment goals.

Over the past couple of years, budget shortfalls have led to cuts in faculty and other staff at several schools, including the College of New Rochelle and the College of St. Rose in New York, Assumption College in Massachusetts, St. Michael’s College in Vermont and Aquinas College in Tennessee.

Other schools, such as Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and Holy Cross College in Indiana, have sold land in order to invest resources in their curriculum.

Melanie Morey, the director of the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment and Formation in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the co-author of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, said that some Catholic colleges and universities that relied on religious orders for staffing face special challenges. Historically, they had not made fundraising a priority, so they do not have large endowments to sustain them through difficult financial times.

Many of those schools relied on a “living endowment” for several generations, Ms. Morey said, in the form of free labor from the Catholic religious orders that founded and staffed them. With many of those orders shrinking or even disappearing, expenses add up.

“Living endowments do not translate easily into monetary endowments, and making up for that takes time,” she said.

The question of Catholic identity

Heather Gossart, a senior consultant with the National Catholic Educational Association, told Inside Higher Ed last year that Catholic schools are facing the same challenges as other schools.

“A lot of our national data really indicate that some of these small Catholic colleges, as well as small private colleges throughout the country, are really struggling because of their finances,” Ms. Gossart said. She added that while many Catholic schools in the United States are thriving (there are about 250 in total), many others must seek “new and creative ways to recruit student populations and to create affordable tuitions” or risk shuttering.

The number of Americans who do not identify with religion has grown rapidly in recent decades, with young people leading the charge. According to the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of those born between 1990 and 1996 say they are religiously unaffiliated. In light of such changes, Ms. Morey said, religious institutions must consider how best to communicate their mission to prospective students.

“For the vast majority of students who go to Catholic institutions, the Catholic identity is not necessarily the thing that draws them first and foremost,” she said. “They want an academic setting that is appealing and that will help position them to flourish and do well.”

But Ms. Morey also said that schools should not run from their Catholic heritage. She said Catholic schools have a “value added” in their openness to exploring religious questions, which can be an appealing even to students who are uncommitted to a particular faith tradition.

Catholic schools have a “value added” in their openness to exploring religious questions, which can be an appealing even to students who are uncommitted to a particular faith tradition.

Rebecca Sawyer, a vice president at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told America that she agrees that the challenges facing Catholic schools warrant action, but she pointed to a general upward trend in enrollment during the past 60 years. It is only recently that there has been a dip in enrollment at Catholic institutions, which appears to coincide with a dip in overall enrollment at colleges and universities. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, while the number of Catholic colleges has fallen, from 305 in 1965 to 225 today, total enrollment at Catholic institutions has increased steadily, from about 410,000 students in 1956 to about 765,000 students in 2017. Still, that number is down about 20,000 students from a peak in 2010.

“For every negative story there is out there saying enrollment has gone down, there’s a story on the opposite end saying enrollment has gone up,” Ms. Sawyer said. “It’s part of the normal ebb and flow of higher education.”

Federal projections estimate that overall college enrollment will continue to climb and that the peak reached in 2010 will be matched, and start growing again, in just a couple of years.

“For every negative story there is out there saying enrollment has gone down, there’s a story on the opposite end saying enrollment has gone up.”

Ms. Sawyer said some Catholic colleges and universities are considering ways to meet financial challenges through partnerships with one another and, in some instances, opening satellite locations in areas where the Catholic population is growing. In 2012, Benedictine University, located in the Chicago suburbs, opened an additional campus in Arizona, where population is growing at a rate double the national average. (Benedictine is in the process of closing another satellite campus located in Springfield, Ill.) A number of campuses, including Benedictine, were lured to Arizona by the City of Mesa, which had received grant money to address the need for more college opportunities for local residents. Results have been mixed for the institutions, Arizona Central reported in 2015, but Benedictine’s Mesa campus held its first graduation last year.

Colleges and universities that have lower academic rankings in publications like The Princeton Review and The Wall Street Journal, including Catholic schools, could lead to an increase in the number of closures.

According to an analysis published by The Wall Street Journal in February, U.S. colleges and universities are being sorted into “winners and losers,” with the top-ranked schools thriving while once-stable but lower-ranked schools facing sometimes insurmountable financial challenges.

“For generations, a swelling population of college-age students, rising enrollment rates and generous student loans helped all schools, even mediocre ones, to flourish. Those days are ending,” the article says.

At a meeting hosted by A.C.C.U. in Washington earlier this year, a higher-education consultant challenged administrators of small Catholic colleges to consider the futures of their institutions.

“I actually think there will be fewer institutions in 20 years,” Lucie Lapovsky said. “The smaller colleges need to ask themselves ‘Is our self-preservation really for the students or for the institution?’”

This story has been updated with comments and financial data from spokeswomen at Loyola University New Orleans and The Catholic University of America.

Correction, May 17: An earlier version of this story said that The Catholic University of America planned to lay off about 9 percent of its faculty. It has been updated to correct this error, noting that a proposed plan is to reduce the size of its full-time faculty by about 9 percent through a process that could include layoffs.

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J Cosgrove
5 months ago

Two basic questions

First Why do Catholic universities exist? I know why they did when I attended a Jesuit college.

What has been the cost driver in college costs? It is not teacher salaries?

Addressing each of these may help them prosper.

Mike McDermott
5 months ago

Catholic or Christian identity is not the problem. It is the solution.

Too many Historically Catholic Colleges are guilty of false advertising when they claim Catholic identity. Parents, who have significant influence on where their kids go to college, no longer associate Catholic colleges with safer campuses or campuses supporting traditional Christian moral values.

Tim Donovan
5 months ago

As a post-Vatican II Catholic whose quality of religious instruction steadily declined from elementary school (where it was decent) to secondary school (where it was merely fair) to Catholic college where dissent was widespread among faculty in various disciplines including theology, I agree that "Catholic or Christian identity is not the problem. It is the solution."
When I attended Cabrini College (now University) in Radnor, Pennsylvania, our college newspaper ran an advertisement for a gynecologist who was well known in the community for performing numerous abortions. In fairness, the ad didn't state the violent nature of a large proportion of his work. Sadly, however, only myself and a small number of students and faculty (including one Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart, the nuns who founded and sponsored the college) presented a vigorous yet reasonable perspective on the error of the newspaper ad. I prefer making occasional modest contributions to Catholic schools that are truly Catholic, including Christendom College in Virginia and Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. I pointedly decline to contribute to my alma mater. Sad. While the curriculum was excellent in terms of my major, (Special) Education, and without boasting I did well in most of my courses, including Theology, I had and continue to have serious reservations about the authenticity of the school's Catholic identity. I believe it was the late tremendous television evangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said words to the effect that it 's better to send your child to a secular college where he he or she will have to defend the faith than send him or her to a "Catholic" college where he or she will lose our faith. Sad, but true, in my view .

Henry George
5 months ago

The last time I attended a Catholic College - we had:

Required attendance at Daily Mass.
Lights Out at 10:00 PM Sunday-Thursday.
Required volunteer work around campus.
A rather sparse dorm room.
Very dedicated Professors.
Single Gender Dorms.
Requirement that we all take 6 Philosophy
and 6 Theology courses.

I offered to pay for my nephew to go to the University of San Franciso
but then I saw that they did not have a Theology department
but a 'Theology and Religious Studies' department with more
non - Catholic/Christian Courses than Catholic/Christian.
Not to mention Coed Dorms with the opposite genders sharing
the same floors.

He is now attending Wyoming Catholic College.

Far, far, far too many Catholic Colleges sold their Spiritual Inheritance
for a "Mess of Secular Porridge" and will be closing because they
really have nothing to offer that a State College can't offer for far, far cheaper.

They sowed the Wind trying to be like Secular Colleges
- thanks to the "Land of the Lakes Declaration" and now
they have inherited the Whirlwind of Indifference.

John Walton
5 months ago

There are 4 Catholic institutions rated "A" by Forbes for their financial integrity in 2017: Boston College, College of the Holy Cross, Georgetown and Notre Dame, Villanova will be an "A" next year -- last I looked none of these had diminished their Catholic identity, although there have been exciting moments for each. What characterizes each -- rabid alumni involvement. Regrettably the crucifexes have been removed from the classrooms of many formerly Catholic colleges.
A minor factotum -- one of my Jesuit friends recalled that you only needed a faint pulse to get into our state university long those many decades ago. To get into the same University's Honors Program these days requires very very high standardized test scores etc.,etc. and parents pay in-state tuition or get a free ride. They also go to a bowl game every January.

Andrew Wolfe
5 months ago

Well... sorry to burst your bubble. Holy Cross is good, and Boston College seems to be recovering slowly from the Boston joke that BC stands for "Barely Catholic."

Michael Seredick
5 months ago

I attended John Carroll University part-time for three years, but completed my BA and MA at Kent State University. I found good people at both schools. The idea that State Universities have nothing to offer for those seeking an outstanding education in chosen fields along with spiritual growth is false. Best wishes to both University paths.

Tim Donovan
5 months ago

Despite widespread dissent from authentic Church teaching, my Catholic college had ",Campus ministry" to which I belonged and was active. Again, despite some vigorous disagreements about authentic Catholic Church teaching, I believe that a campus (including secular universities) require a Newman Center ministry to provide an opportunity for spiritual growth among students. I'm pleased that Kent State University was a positive educational experience for you, and also attended to your spiritual growth. However, I believe that many secular universities (and more than a few Catholic schools) give short shrift to helping Catholic students in their spiritual growth, let alone attempt evangelization. I concede that some secular institutions may offer sufficient number of theology or philosophy courses. But as someone posted even some Catholic institutions fail in terms of offering an authentic Catholic experience.

Patty Bennett
5 months ago

Keep genuine Catholic identity. Don't sell your soul for mammon! God is almighty. The dollar isn't.
And..."What would it profit a man (or a university) to gain the whole world and lose his very soul?"

Tim Donovan
5 months ago

I believe you've offered excellent advice. My parents sacrificed with love so that my brother, sister and me could each attend twelve years of Catholic school. My brother and me then were fortunate that our dear Mom and late Dad allowed us to live at home, take our student loans, and work part-time to complete St. Joseph's University (in my brother's case) and Cabrini College (in my case). As noted in my comments above, it's tragic that the "Catholic" college I graduated from was one with widespread dissent among the faculty. Although there were some faculty who taught authentic Catholic Church teaching, yet allowed responsible inquiry into various matters of debate. Unfortunately , however, speaking for Cabrini College, my alma mater, the administration essentially sold their soul to : "mammom." Why? I believe it was a result of seeking higher student enrollment , but at the expense of maintaining authentic Catholic identity.

Patty Bennett
5 months ago

.

Kevin Murphy
5 months ago

I attended Fordham from the late '70s to early '80s, when it was still possible to find some genuine Catholic experience and thought. Today, as I read of the current situation, I wouldn't go near it. The Theology department espouses the latest fads (e.g. gender identify, etc.) and, unless I'm mistaken, the Chairman is a gentleman married to another gentleman. In other words, the school is more James Martin than John Paul II.

E.Patrick Mosman
5 months ago

At what point did Catholic universities cease being the soul of Catholic education, several thoughts below.
-Perhaps when Notre Dame allowed the Vagina Monologues to be staged at the university essentially placing a "Seal of Approval" and deeming it suitable suitable for religious, priests, Bishops and students at a supposedly Catholic University to hear, air and champion. Personally I don’t recall Catholic teaching on morality, Chastity, purity in thoughts words and deeds having been replaced by acceptance of obscenity and depravity.
Perhaps John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. could cite the source, Vatican or other, for this change. When the play was performed at Notre Dame what effort was made, not to create "safe places", but to inform the students of Catholic teachings which differ in all aspects from pornography. If this showing encouraged dialogue where, when and how did it take place?
Perhaps when Notre Dame honored politicians such as President Obama who supported allowing a child born alive from an attempted abortion to die and and honored VP Biden both of whom support social practices that are opposed to Catholic teachings, both supported same sex marriage and other anti-religious programs.
Perhaps Peter Blatty's “Petition” asking that the Catholic Church require that Georgetown implement Ex corde Ecclesiae, a papal constitution governing Catholic colleges, and, only as a last possible measure, the removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit in any of its representations. "........
Marquette University should have been included in Mr Blatty's Petition as it
suspended a professor over his support for a student who opposed gay marriage.
and Loyola Marymount where stating a belief in only two sexes, male and female was under investigation as a "hate" crime.
Is there a university or college in the USA instilling Catholic spiritual and moral values in their students?

John Walton
5 months ago

Patrick -- Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Kara Hansen
5 months ago

Has anyone considered that the rapidly increased cost of Catholic higher education could be the reason schools are seeing declining enrollment, not the Catholic identity as the cause? The New York Times ran an article recently about the increase in students attending community college across the country because the costs of higher education in general have skyrocketed. It becomes a return on investment and quality of education issue. My husband and I both graduated from a Catholic college where the tuition cost has more than doubled in the past decade since we graduated. It was pricey at the time we attended.

Scholarships not withstanding, I don't think we could in good conscience encourage our children to attend our alma mater, knowing the student loan debt they will accrue since I don't forsee a way that we could pay their tuition. And where we live, there are multiple state colleges in a four-hour radius that have robust on-campus Catholic centers that can ensure our kids have access to a Catholic faith community during their college years. While I loved my Catholic liberal arts education, I have to balance my wish for my children to have a similar college experience with one that's fiscally sound for their respective futures, too.

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

Faculty salaries have not risen that much. So why the tremendous increase in costs? It is in places other than education, especially religious education.

Andrew Wolfe
5 months ago

Majority is in administration I have heard.

James Skain
5 months ago

Check out Benedictine College Atchison Kansas for a successful Catholic college

James Skain
5 months ago

Check out Benedictine College Atchison Kansas for a successful Catholic college

Carlos Orozco
4 months 4 weeks ago

Who wants to get in debt for many years in exchange for being propagandized endlessly with gender theory and different flavors of Marxism? Adding insult to injury, God knows how many thousands of dollars the label of "Catholic" education adds to the total bill.

Maybe Jordan Peterson is right and Western humanities in the University are dead and must be rediscovered in their power and beauty by individuals, instead of learned from politicized professors who could not care less about the concept of "truth".

Colin Donovan
4 months 3 weeks ago

While this article mentions the role that orthodoxy might have in attracting or discouraging students to attend Catholic college, it also should have given some consideration to orthopraxis. A generation of graduates of many Catholic colleges and universities were taught that contraception was a matter of conscience, and at least had affirmed for them the secular message that abortion was a woman's choice. If there are fewer Catholic children today who want to attend colleges with a Catholic identity, the role of demographics likely places an important part not accounted for in this article.

Nancy Walton-House
4 months 3 weeks ago

I graduated from Seattle University, one of the 28 Jesuit universities, in 1964 and worked there in professional staff and faculty positions 1978-1982. I am an actively engaged alumna whose retirement is greatly enriched by this relationship. Since 1982, the university more than doubled in enrollment, undergraduate and graduate programs, services and campus size. I’ve learned recently that SU navigated through turbulent financial times more than once since our founding in 1891. I am very grateful to the Jesuit and lay leaders who helped us survive these times and thrive today. They understood the signs of our times and provided the necessary expertise to strategically and effectively guide us in dealing with them. We maintain our Jesuit Catholic identity while welcoming and partnering with students and community members from diverse traditions and places. It is possible and necessary to do so if we want our Catholic schools and universities to continue and thrive.

Judith Gerharz
4 months 3 weeks ago

I would say it does not help the way it used to. My Catholic Identity once included a firm belief in in the superiority of K through PHD education in Catholic Schools. Recruiting began in grade school and continued up the chain through High School and College. Our advisors, usually priests and nuns, told us of the dangers of non-catholic education especially in regards to loosing the faith. Those were the days. Catholic Identity seems to have lost the extra kick it once had.

Bruce Pitman
4 months 2 weeks ago

Higher education today has an emphasis on experiential learning, accomplishments outside the classroom (of course, inside the classroom as well). A strong, vibrant Catholic identity can frame these very qualities that are so much in demand for new graduates.
Not a return to fortress church and censorship on campus, but universities "...in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative" sounds like a recipe for fixing declining enrollment.

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